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Kneading Relief: Sister Veronica's Healing Touch

By Elaine M. Berkopec, O.S.U.

This Ursuline sister envisions massage therapy as a means of bringing a healing touch to her patients' spirits as well as their bodies.

Q U I C K S C A N

Sister Veronica Cipar

Photo by Al Fuchs

Few people would consider a massage table to be a place of ministry. Yet that is how Ursuline Sister Veronica Cipar describes the massage table in her small, cozy facility in the Ursuline Motherhouse in Pepper Pike, Ohio.

Sister Veronica has developed a ministry that some might consider unusual for religious sisters. But she envisions massage therapy as a means of bringing a healing touch to her patients’ spirits as well as their bodies. “I have been given a grace to focus on what I am doing for people, and I really see their woundedness when I’m working on them,” she says.

“It was a natural thing for me to do,” she explains. As a child, “I used to massage my father’s back.” Later in life, “when I took care of my mother in her last months, I would massage her back.”

Massaging away the aches and pains of others was an ability that Sister Veronica did not leave behind when she entered the convent. In her religious community, she was known for kneading relief into the stiff, sore shoulders of the sisters. Even during her 32-year career as a professor of Spanish at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, she kept alive her interest and skill in massage. She maintained a file of articles about various massage-therapy schools in the country and selected Ohio College of Medical Arts (now closed), where she received her degree in 1995.

Sister Veronica always saw massage as a means of service: “If I could wean only one sister away from medication, it would be worth it...or take care of those who have borne the heat of the day, or help those sisters who are still in ministry to keep going, it would be beneficial.”


'Beyond Stress Relief'

There is a difference between being a massage therapist and being a masseur or masseuse, she explains: “A masseuse can give massages for relaxation or stress reduction. Therapy goes beyond stress relief. Therapists try to figure out how to help people for their long-term health.”

In Ohio, the state medical board requires that a massage therapist must be licensed. To earn a license, a therapist must take courses in anatomy, physiology and pathology. In addition, clinical practice is required. People wanting massages from students come to the school and pay a minimal amount. (Students work on them under the guidance of instructors.)

“An interesting thing happened at the end of the course of studies and before graduation,” recalls Sister Veronica. “We were having an open forum as to what we were thinking and how we felt. I was very surprised when one woman said, ‘Well, I have to mention this: When I told my friends and family that there was a sister in our class, they could not get over it. We were all amazed that she would do this kind of work, that she would even be permitted to. I have to tell you, I wondered too. But at the end of all this, I find myself being very proud that there was a sister in my class.’ I thought that was very moving because no one else in the class had ever said that to me. I thought I was just one of the group.”


Health Benefits

Veronica and other massage therapists have learned things through experience and intuition that schools of medicine discovered through research and observation. For example, Prevention magazine reported in 1996 that scientists at the University of Miami observed increased growth rates in premature babies who were massaged briefly each day, compared to preemies who were not massaged. The massaged preemies also went home from the hospital nearly a week sooner than average. In addition, diabetic children who were massaged by their parents exhibited glucose levels that decreased to near-normal and normal range.

Children are not the only ones who benefit from massage therapy. More and more adults are discovering it to be a means of learning to recognize the messages their bodies send about their health. In addition, massages relieve stress and help people relax.

Massage therapists have found that many people function from the neck up. These people are completely unaware of their bodies. They don’t realize how tight their muscles are or how much pain they are in. Regular massage helps people tune into the signals their bodies send them.


Spiritual Gifts

Sister Veronica’s appointments usually last about two hours. Before her client even gets on the massage table, the therapist may spend as much as an hour just talking and listening.

Janice, a CPA who owns her own firm, has been a client of Sister Veronica’s for years. Janice says, “The tension that builds in my back and neck muscles due to the stress under which I work has melted away under the expert hands of Sister Veronica.”

Before starting a massage, Sister Veronica rests her hand on her client’s head or over his or her heart. Then she says a short prayer, either silently or aloud, to ask a blessing for the body.

Janice says, “As she silently prays over me before beginning, accompanied by the soft music that fills the room, I can’t help but feel the presence of Jesus. And who better to be there but the one true healer himself.”

Sister Veronica has numerous tools at her disposal. Stored in a cooler are cold packs, which she applies to soothe pain and swelling. She applies steam packs to relax sore muscles. And for people with arthritis, she uses heated paraffin to coat aching hands.

Veronica’s massage table has a lift so elderly and disabled people can get on the table. There is also a chair specially designed for massages.


Presence of Christ

The most important religious symbol in her office is a crucifix hanging over the desk. Sister Veronica specifically wanted one with a corpus having well-defined muscles. It reminds her of Christ’s presence in those she serves.

“Sometimes, if I see people with arms that ache, or who have worked hard and are in pain, I think of Jesus hanging on the cross,” she explains. “Or I think of Mary, the Blessed Mother, especially when I encounter women who have suffered with their children. I often think of Mary, how she must have looked upon the beaten body of her son. That vision gives me strength.”

The good news of her professional reputation and availability has spread exclusively by word of mouth. Her clients come from a variety of backgrounds. Besides her Ursuline sisters, people from all around the community seek her out. Veronica welcomes all of them.

“They’re all such neat people,” she says. “A few did not return after the first time; those might have come just as a lark or for the price. But rarely do people come just once.”

Some arrive by accident, she explains. Rick, a local police officer, once called and left a message for another Sister Veronica in the Ursuline community, but Sister Veronica Cipar mistakenly got the message. She returned his call and left him a message about a massage appointment. “He said, ‘Well, why not?’ Now he comes regularly.” She has since helped relieve his chronic migraine headaches as well as the general stress that is a result of his police work.


Treating Abused People

Some of her clients are people who are considered unlikely candidates for being touched, she explains. “I have been deeply moved by serving someone who has been abused, raped or assaulted. Sometimes I didn’t know about the abuse until after the massage. Then I said in amazement to the person, ‘That you would let me touch your body!’ The massage became part of their healing.”

People who have been physically violated come to Veronica because they know she will treat them with dignity and an attitude of respect. When this happens, she is very conscious of and often awed by her role as a minister to people whose need for healing is so deep.

Some people seek out Veronica only because she is a religious sister. But she passionately believes that the real work is done through her, not by her. “I know I am just an instrument. I feel that deeply—an instrument for the body to do what the body knows how to do, and also for God to do the rest.”


Religious Background Helps

Sister Veronica’s life of prayer has given her an unusual perspective about her work. Often, she is spiritual director as well as massage therapist.

Rick testifies, “Just as important as the actual treatments have been the many spiritually enriched conversations we have shared, usually about my life problems and challenges. I’ve always told Veronica she should charge me two fees: one for massotherapy and another for spiritual therapy.”

Veronica views the practice of massage therapy as parallel to the celebration of Eucharist, at which Christ gives his body and blood to the faithful in the form of bread and wine. “If I have any kind of spirituality, it is eucharistic,” she explains. As Christ gives himself to nurture his people, the people Sister Veronica serves give their lives and renewed strength in service to others.

Sister Veronica’s ministry may be relatively new to the Church, but little by little it is becoming less unusual. As the number of religious sisters dwindles and their median age rises, these sisters are finding new ways to support their communities financially and to care for their retired members.

These career changes from teaching, for example, which has been a traditional ministry for sisters, also reflect their efforts to explore new ways to minister to the faithful. Religious women have always gone to serve where they were needed. As society has changed, so have their ministries, and some sisters see a deep need for healing, for reconciling people with their own bodies.

Sister Mary Benedict, a client of Sister Veronica’s, says, “I have a greater respect for the mind-body-spirit relationship and how God puts us together. Daily living should and could be a celebrative articulation of life well lived. When we are in balance, we can do this.”

Sister Veronica’s religious background enables her to see more than just what a person is on the outside. She tries to look through the eyes of faith. “I’m able to say to any who come, no matter what, that their bodies are beautiful because of what is going on inside,” she says. “I don’t preach but it may come up in my prayer. I may say, ‘May you realize that your body is beautiful.’ It seems to work wonders on their sense of self-worth.”


Finding a Healing Path

Sister Veronica’s work has also become a means for some to approach the Church, especially for those who have separated long ago from their faith. For them, she becomes an avenue back, or a channel of better understanding of the many means of healing that the Church can offer. People share with someone they trust, with a person of faith, and they find a path to healing.

“Relationships develop into friendships. Sometimes I am invited to share a meal during which a person can have time to talk. This becomes an extension of my ministry,” says Sister Veronica.

Laura is one of those clients who came reluctantly at first but now looks forward to her visits. “My doctor referred me to Sister Veronica for massotherapy to help my back and neck, which were injured in an automobile accident,” she explains. “I was hesitant at first because I am not one to relax. Now, four years later, I look forward to each appointment with Sister Veronica and feel very blessed that I am one of her patients.”

Sister Veronica sums up her feelings about her ministry: “Jesus the Healer is so appropriate a model for any kind of healing. I consider massage therapy to be a medical profession based on the healing work of Jesus. It is a proper ministry for the Church.”


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Elaine M. Berkopec, O.S.U., is an Ursuline sister who lives in Garfield Heights, Ohio. She taught junior and senior high school students for 15 years and now teaches basic education and job skills to women who are making the transition from poverty.


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